Art in Making: AIR Onomichi (Komyouji Kaikan) & Abandoned House Reclamation Project

‘Certainly, for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the

idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.’

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)

‘I believe that art is about discovery, learning, exchange,

and collaboration. Art has the power to create

experiences and phenomenological effects’.

Fram Kitagawa, Art Place Japan (2014)

 

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Onomichi is a small town in the Hiroshima Prefecture right by the Seto Inland Sea. It spreads along steep slopes, inhabited by numerous temples cloaked by trees and bakeries so small that one discovers them only guided by your nose. ‘Watch out for the meandering cats’ somebody warns me, and I soon learn that if pastry is on show, the cats will claim it.  One of the family run wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) shop is Tatsumiya, where I was invited behind the scenes to sample edamame mochi and where I quickly became enveloped in the scent of butter, green tea, sticky rice paste and sweet mixtures of unknown origins. Tatsumiya’s emblem is a sea horse and once again I was reminded about the proximity of the sea, which makes this place so scenic and relaxed. In 1168 a port opened here and for the next five centuries it became a centre of rice shipment and trades with foreign countries. When talking about the origins of Onomichi, Kiyohito Mikami, a local artist and curator in the Nakata Museum of Art tells me that the town’s community remained accepting and unbiased about other cultures.

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I am looking at various brochures & texts received in Onomichi, which I visited in April as a part of my research residency in Japan. Here I was introduced to the AIR Onomichi project (acronym for Artist In Residence) with its hub in the Air Café/gallery run by Komyouji Kaikan, an art initiative founded around the Komyouji Temple. Not being able to read in Japanese (yet), I only paused at English phrases and this is what I picked up:

“Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: WORKS – CONCEPTS – PROCESSES – SITUATIONS – INFORMATION”

“… by combining multi-layered materials”

“I edited it as a document with quality, such as movement of the creation site and feeling of air, established the situation of exchange and creation”

Crossroad Blues, Robert Johnson, a blues song written in 1936

Onomichi Art Crossroads

Beyond Boundaries (2017)

The inability to understand everything gives at times opportunity to focus on ideas that shine through. And when foraging through maps, photographs and my own memories of the place and its people, I am now able to create a picture of an inspired society that stunned me with its openness, engagement with the past and thirst for ‘exchange and creation’. During the presentation I gave in the AIR Café, I met Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami, artists and art educators. They asked about a book that inspired me, any unrealized project dealing with utopia and my most current concern; questions suggesting curiosity about my relationship with the world. I also met art students, who shared with me their works: crafted, reflective and experimental. I was lucky to meet Fukuda Megumi, a photographer from Hiroshima, who planted hundreds of artificial red tulips around the country house that once belonged to her grandparents. She titled it Eternal Garden (2003). My views on Japanese photography were challenged by Akira Yasuda, a professor at the Fukuyama University, whose own photographs are seminar on light, form and tenuousness of the quotidian. Indeed, the AIR of philosophical and empirical investigations into the world fills the Onomichi’s historical landscape.

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traditional tatami room I stayed in
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The view from my room
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Onomichi’s hills

Every year AIR Onomichi invites artists from around the world to participate in their residency programme. The scheme coincides with the Abandoned House Reclamation Project, an ongoing renovation (2007- ) of derelict houses scattered around Onomichi’s rolling hills. The number of vacant houses in Japan is rapidly growing and some say that by 2020 there might be almost 10 million of such properties.  I stayed overnight in one of these renovated homes and woke up to a breathtaking view lit up by the sun (and an empty house just in front of the window). Often left behind by the elderly who can’t cope with the town’s vertical layout, the dwellings have been slowly reclaimed by  nature. Seeing them as a legacy of the past and a hope for the future, they are used for the artist residencies, projects and performances. One of such initiatives is ‘Organizing Abandon’ in collaboration with Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman (b. 1973). By scrupulous collection of literally everything (from wooden beams to ashes) found in the ruins of a former greengrocer, Sulaiman acts as an archivist unravelling the unknown stories to map her own narratives. Blending Malay and Jomon culture, astronomical observations, carpentry from Indonesia and new materials, the project turns into a conversation about multiculturalism and histories of the others that become ours. Deconstruction is being replaced by enrichment through participation and interpretation.

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The map of the Abandoned House Reclamation project
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Pictures of properties before and after renovation
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former greengrocers
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roof tiles leftovers
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Pencils found in the greengrocers

Onomichi’s artistic scene is driven by multi-layered debates, intellectual inquiry and experimentation. Arts are thriving here, whether they are visual, literary, performative or architectural. One could say that AIR Onomichi, or maybe even the Onomichi’s society are an experiment themselves. Being artists and art teachers, Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami place the emphasis on cognition and investigation. The process of unearthing something and the path to understanding are productions of art too. Art’s place therefore is not only in the galleries and the exhibition venues, but it also belongs to the playing ground, garden, studios, laboratory, kitchen, inquiry and the infinity of try and error.

Japanese art critic Arigo Tsuguchi writes in his short essay To Create Everyday Life that ‘art doesn’t really exist somewhere in isolation separate from our lives’ and adds that ‘we can understand “art” as an activity of creating a new way of life and an investigation of the (possible) ways of life/or the world we live in’. Here in Onomichi art does come out from the institutional walls into the surrounding fields; and vice versa, the ways of living implicate artistic perspectives. The possibilities of such collaborations are endless, and the walls come down creating an open stage; borderless and beautifully unpredictable. In this way, Onomichi’s artistic collaborations remind me of situationism with its spontaneous mapping of the everyday geographies.

And that is precisely why standing at the crossroads with the blues in one’s ears is as artistic as any portrait by Cezanne, readymade by Duchamp and Jack Kerouac’s poem. It gives us choice and makes us alive. Thank god for journeys and intersections!

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AIR Cafe

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Bridge connecting the seaside with the hillside

 

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* The review is a result of  a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation

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The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 (Barbican, London)



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It might come as a surprise but the average life span of a building in Tokyo is thirty years. Decimated by natural disasters and the catastrophic bombing during the 2nd World War, Japanese houses tell a story of resilient architecture that chases the modern while evoking the traditional. Endlessly erased, adapted and mutated, it is a palimpsest of the old and the new, the fleeting and the enduring, the ephemerality and physicality. While post war Japanese architecture might have struggled to find its identity, it never ceased to amuse with its inventiveness and sophistication. Somewhere between the functionalism and impermanence is what we’d call the essence of Japanese living.

The survey of Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 in London’s Barbican is an exhibition that, alongside showing ground breaking architectural designs and their socio-economical contexts, attempts to dig deeper into the psyche of the Japanese family. Spread across two floors centred around a courtyard with lovingly reconstructed walk-through models of contemporary Japanese rooms, the show allows us to sense what it’s like to live in these finest examples of nanotecture. The gallery’s split level layout creates a peek-a-boo viewing experience, also attributed to the use of spatial margins (such as staircases, floor landings etc.) that create a feeling of openness and homeliness simultaneously. The soundtracks from Japanese home dramas and cartoons screened in various rooms permeate the air, recalling neighbours living next door and creating a space, where the public and the private spheres blend organically.

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This staple Japanese concept of openness, incorporating the outside environment into the family dwelling is introduced in the example of Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto (ca. 1615-56), exquisitely photographed by Yasuhiro Ishimoto in the 1950’s. Built with traditional materials such as wood and bamboo, every arrangement of the smallest detail was designed to be followed by the human’s natural movement. At the core of the house is a veranda; an in-between zone and a symbol of the loose boundary between the privacy of the home and the external landscape. Profoundly traditional as it may seem, the Katsura Villa was also uniquely modern and inspired such brutalists as Le Cobusier and Walter Gropius who praised its Mondrianesque design. Suddenly, viewing the show whilst being surrounded by the Barbican Estate gains more significance. It feels right to be here.

Room by room, the exhibition draws a history of Japanese architecture, responding to the post war austerity with concrete utilitarianism, and to the economic affluence of the 1970’s with technologically advanced experimental housing. Complemented by films, documentaries and photographs, this show gradually becomes more of a survey on Japanese family life, often hiding its darker underbelly. The overarching impression of being steeped in architectural bliss soon disappears, especially when viewing some artistic responses to the society’s consumerism and alienation. Mako Idemitsu’s short film Another Day of a Housewife (1977-78), is a record of a mundane existence surveyed by the ever-present TV monitor. The exhibition also includes Katsuhira Miyamoto’s Zenkai House (1997) that illustrates the catastrophic consequences of the earthquakes and unforgiving governmental policies that favour erecting endless new structures above preserving the old ones. Another problematic aspect of Japanese housing is considered in the black and white photographs of Ryuji Miyamoto, who documented homelessness in the post bubble 1990’s through images of tiny cardboard homes, some of which fit between perfectly trimmed bushes.

Perhaps these uncomfortable aspects of Japanese housing problems are not exploited enough in the show. Not all these homes are airy and holistic, with most of the Japanese society still living in claustrophobic flats crammed with most peculiar collections, as depicted by Kyoichi Tsuzuki in Tokyo: A Certain Style. Nevertheless, this survey is a delight for the eye, a feast for the senses and a food for thought too. It’s a joy of architecture. Even though it seems to be sometimes only a joyous utopia.

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originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow and published here.